01 July 2016

Prospectus of Conservatism

Reflections from the Rational Right contains commentary on politics, history, and religion and how they intersect in American public life.

As this blog's title implies, these reflections come from a conservative perspective. 

Three primary areas of interest include assessing the progress of conservatism as a political movement,elucidating key conservative ideas, and justifying conservatism as a political philosophy--or ideology, if you will.

Contemporary American conservatism first emerged as a distinct political and intellectual movement during those tumultuous decades that witnessed the New Deal transformation of American political traditions at home and the communist challenge to Western civilization abroad. Dubbed the “New Right” by its detractors, it combined opposition to government expansion through the New Deal at home with an intense antagonism to the expansion of communism abroad. 

The movement manifested a strong religious undercurrent. The core ideas of the movement were largely the product of Catholic intellectuals, many of whom worked with William F. Buckley and his National Review magazine.These intellectuals attempted both to unearth the historical roots of their conservatism and to articulate an explicitly conservative philosophy of society and politics. Some of these conservatives, most notably Russell Kirk, found the first in eighteenth-century British parliamentarian and writer Edmund Burke. They embraced Burke's conservative principles rooted tradition and religion, especially as he expressed them in his polemics against the French Revolution. Kirk, in his groundbreaking book, The Conservative Mind, distilled the conservatism of Burke and other like-minded thinkers into six basic principles. These included among others a belief in a transcendent moral order under natural law, an organic unity of society, the necessity of orders and classes, a inseparable link between freedom and property rights, and a healthy respect for custom and convention.

The movement was hardly monolithic. Other conservatives challenged Kirk's conclusions. They articulated a conservatism rooted more in the American experience rather than European tradition. This led them to different conclusions regarding the central goals of conservatism. They argued for a more liberal or libertarian conservatism. One of these writers, Frank S. Meyer, characterized this fissure in the early conservative movement as a disagreement over the relative merits of virtue and liberty. Kirk and his European style conservatism stood for virtue. Meyer and his more libertarian conservatism acknowledged the importance of virtue. He believed, however, the virtue must be voluntary. That requires liberty. Actions exhibit virtue only when freely chosen. This precluded efforts by the government to cultivate virtue in its citizens.

Although this “New Right” attracted  interest (and hostility) from academics, it attracted little popular support and made insignificant headway politically. While the readership of the National Review gradually expanded, the ideas of the “New Right” failed to win broad based ascent among American voters. The post-war political scene was dominated by a center-left consensus that supported many New Deal reforms at home and containment of communism abroad. When “New Right” political activists secured the nomination of Senator Barry Goldwater as the Republican Party nominee for the Presidency in 1964, the campaign ended in a disastrous defeat.

This conservative movement experienced a resurgence of religious-based enthusiasm in the 1970s, when liberalism slowly transmogrified into progressivism.  The outbreak of the culture wars over the sexual revolution, abortion, narcotics, and the role of religion in American public life led to the emergence of a new “Religious Right.” A loose coalition of evangelical Protestants, this new religious conservatism exhibited a populism that the older conservatism lacked. The new “Religious Right” proved a major factor in the election of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency and the subsequently domination of the Presidency by the Republican Party in the last decades of the 20th century. Since that time religious conservatism and political conservatism became synonymous in the minds of many people. Conservative politicians, pundits, and television personalities often make some obligatory allusions to the Bible, faith, morality, or--more euphemistically-- family values.

Several varieties of conservatism have emerged and endured over the last half century. And some of the most well-known conservative writers even have “out of the cloister” so to speak, severing the connection between conservative political philosophy and religion.  Conservative intellectuals that have revealed themselves as atheists or agnostics in the last few years include George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Charles C. W. Cooke, S. E. Cupp, Heather MacDonald, and Robert Tracinski. Each espouses some version of social and political conservatism but without any appeal to religion.

Mainstream contemporary American conservatism, however, can be distilled somewhat simplistically down to classical liberalism on economic issues and traditional religion on moral issues.

The reflections published here explore what conservatism as a philosophy might look like without liberalism and Christianity. They resume a conservative tradition rooted in the pre-Christian world of classical Greco-Roman world--a perspective based upon reason rather than religious revelation.

 Long before the Religious Right there was the Rational Right.

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